US marine biologist and Rolex ambassador Sylvia Earle
US marine biologist and Rolex ambassador Sylvia Earle
Image: Rolex / Alexandre De Brabant

US marine biologist and Rolex ambassador Sylvia Earle is still a committed ocean activist at the age of 82. And when National Geographic and Rolex recently announced a new partnership to support renewed ocean exploration, she was the guest of honour. Wanted asked this extraordinary woman about her journey thus far.

You have played an exceptional role in creating global awareness about marine conservation. How did you go from biologist to explorer to global spokesperson for the oceans?

I was fortunate to be born with a passion for science and exploration at the moment in time when access to the sea via scuba was beginning to be available to everyone. As a student in 1953, I had a chance to use one of the first sets of scuba in the US. There were only two words of instruction: “Breathe naturally!”

It was glorious to be able to stay submerged long enough to get acquainted with individual fish and watch their behaviour on their own terms. As a scientist, I applied to be part of a Nasa/US Navy project, called Tektite, to live and conduct research from a special underwater laboratory for two weeks in 1970. There were no women astronauts at the time and no one expected women to apply to be aquanauts, but some of us did. We were selected, not to be teamed with men, but to form an all-woman team. I was chosen as the leader and the international recognition that came from that role unexpectedly launched me into the public eye.

National Geographic asked me to write about what it was like to live underwater, and my essay was published in August 1971. As a scientist, I was reluctant to write for publications other than scientific journals, but my love and respect for the National Geographic Magazine as a child won me over. I have since written many articles — and books — for a popular audience.

It was hard, at first, to get out of my academic ivory tower and communicate to the general public, but I have come to understand the importance of sharing knowledge and experiences so others can be inspired to go see for themselves.

Rolex provided watches for the members of the women’s team — my first experience of having a watch that worked under the ocean!

You have created a global network of Hope Spots, aimed at achieving at least 30% of fully protected areas in the ocean by 2030. Are there any Hope Spots in South Africa?

Anthony Ribbink, founder of the Sustainable Seas Trust, has worked with six communities to nominate and establish a network of Hope Spots along the South African coast from Cape Town to Durban.

In 2015, I came here with Mission Blue expedition leader and photographer, Kip Evans, to dive, speak, and meet Ribbink and the Hope Spot champions. All of South Africa’s coast, right to the edge of the exclusive economic zone and beyond, should be regarded with the utmost respect and treated as a giant Hope Spot, worthy of enhanced protection.

The ocean in the past has been valued largely for shipping, recreation, and as a source of commodities — from whales and fish, to minerals, oil, and gas. But the most important thing we extract from the ocean is our existence. Our appetite for ocean wildlife is linked to sharp declines affecting not only such phenomena as South Africa’s sardine run and the loss of sharks, whales, and tuna, but it also has an effect on the carbon cycle, ocean chemistry, and climate change.

Q&A

Which Rolex do you wear?

I actually have three: one of them with a beautifully textured woven band that I wear on special occasions. My serious expedi­tion watch is the Rolex Deepsea, capable of withstanding a depth of 3,900m. I usually wear this watch diving, and almost always when I am in a submarine, but it could also work just as well in the sea outside of most submarines. The third is a beautiful gold watch: a Rolex Datejust 31 that I remove only when it is replaced by one of the other two. It goes from black-tie events to busi­ness meetings to treks on a beach to diving in kelp forests and coral reefs. Actually, all three have served as diving watches at one time or another.

Do you wear the same watch in and out of the water?

But of course!

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